ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTUREPG
The Parker Brothers may have invented the game of Risk, but the real risk awaits anyone who plays the board games devised by Chris Van Allsburg. In the 1995 film of Van Allsburg's picture book Jumanji, startled players were suddenly confronted with a stampede of jungle animals and other unwelcome invasions. The similarly themed Zathura: A Space Adventure transports two young boys (and their house) into the far reaches of outer space, all thanks to a seemingly innocent and antiquated board game uncovered in their basement. The third feature from director Jon Favreau (following the holiday blockbuster Elf) is a very worthy successor to the hit Jumanji, a lively, imaginative tall tale that should thrill young audiences and engage their parents.
Nestled within its stockpile of visual effects, Zathura is essentially the story of two bickering brothers, ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo). Theirs is the eternally familiar relationship of siblings just far enough apart in age to encompass complex emotions of dependence, insecurity, resentment, rebellion and unspoken love. The two boys compete for the attention of their exasperated dad (Tim Robbins), whose work demands force him to leave them in the care of their teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), for whom babysitting is the last item on her priority list. In the midst of a fight, Danny hides in the dumbwaiter of their Craftsman-style house, which Walter sends to the forbidding basement-where an innocently retro-looking, outer-space-themed board game named Zathura awaits.
The tin-metal curiosity has a wind-up key to move its spaceship pieces along a track; with each turn, a card bearing a message pops out of a slot. From the get-go, the messages are anything but soothing: The first card warns, "Meteor shower-Take evasion action," and sure enough, the family's painstakingly restored living room is bombarded by fiery rocks from above. Opening their front door, the boys discover that their house has been uprooted and is now floating in a whole new galactic neighborhood. Subsequent turns of the key put their sister in a deep freeze, conjure up a robot with a destructive streak, and launch an invasion by giant reptilian predators known as Zorgons. Help finally arrives in the form of a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard) who seems to know his way around the galaxy and the eccentricities of this diabolical game. Ultimately, the secret to winning Zathura depends on the boys' ability to end their childish squabbling and acknowledge just how much they mean to each other.
Zathura the movie never leaves the confines of the kids' house, but director Favreau and screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps maintain a fast pace thanks to the startling consequences of each turn of that infernal key. Excellent CGI is integrated with the dependable Stan Winston Studio's live robots and monsters. The raptor-like Zorgons in particular will be too scary for very young children, but there's also ample humor to accompany the special-effects onslaughts: Self-absorbed Lisa gets a humorous unconscious comeuppance as her cryogenically frozen form takes a few slapstick bumps, and former "Punk'd" regular Shepard makes a disarmingly comic, world-weary hero. Most gratifying of all is the movie's believable depiction of sibling rivalry via the natural performances of young Hutcherson and Bobo; this is one family film which actually offers a worthwhile and non-cloying message about the value of family.